Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 1, 2002
Kim Sichel Germaine Krull, Photographer of Modernity MIT Press, 1999. 363 pp.; 148 color ills.; 43 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (0262194015)

In its perspective and physical scale, this long-awaited study of Germaine Krull (1897–1985) provides a portrait, in more than miniature, of the present moment in photographic publishing. The art market, the academy, and the exhibition-viewing public provide eager audiences for exhaustive monographs of prolific modern-era photographers, especially talented ones who, like Krull, have never received individual scholarly attention in the years postdating the duotone standard. (Germaine Krull: Photographer of Modernity serves as the catalogue for an exhibition with one American and four European venues.)

In addition to the visual and historic interest of her deservedly best-known photographs—deceptively simple-looking small-format views of Paris and other industrial cities in the 1920s, neither abstract nor blandly factual—Krull has much to recommend her for this upgrade to big-book status. Notably, there is her colorful life story, which occupies a considerable portion of Sichel’s text. The ups and downs of Krull’s biography fortuitously parallel a familiar rendition of twentieth-century European cultural history, especially in the formative years that Sichel valuably outlines here.

Born into the dying glow of the fin-de-siècle, Krull was kept at home for schooling by an eccentrically freethinking engineer father until the age of 17, when she enrolled at Munich’s Lehr-und-Versuchsanstalt für Photographie. A sort of Secessionist Kaspar Hauser, coming into the world through her camera, Sichel’s young Krull seems—not for the last time in her life—like a Musilian literary invention, conjured to demonstrate in human terms how one modernist promise after another went wrong. Krull graduated from hothouse superindividualism into public life just as Germany plunged into war, Bavaria into revolutionary and reactionary disaster. Despite the moderating wisdom of her unlikely, long-suffering friend Max Horkheimer, Krull rode this wave of historical mishap to extreme personal consequences: an ill-advised common-law marriage to a Comintern functionary, which ended for her in wasted months in a Soviet prison after the Third International (her mate fled the bloodletting, taking her political naïveté with him), followed by a period of ill health, financial dependence on an unsavory benefactor in Berlin, and abortion (her third).

Distracting though this preamble to her professional life may seem, given that one sees nothing of Krull’s camera work in these years but desultory soft-focus studio portraits and softcore Naturist propaganda, a salient point nevertheless emerges: namely, that Krull owed her very survival to an extraordinary, even harrowing, capacity for forward movement in the face of disorientation, and a knack for hairbreadth escapes (or not) from the disasters that her impetuosity invited. This personal insight, afforded by Sichel’s reconstruction of events alternately revealed and hidden by Krull’s memoirs, makes a good start at understanding the breathtaking compositional high-wire acts that enliven the photographs Krull began producing upon leaving Berlin in 1925. Those images, splendidly selected and reproduced here, are tangibly the products of an eye that expresses itself in restlessness. In Krull’s city, spatial continuity is an illusion, foreground planes and background voids the common materials of optical sensation, trash and asphalt and metal tram-lines the equally lush and forbidding figments in a mobile modern’s gaze.

Unfortunately, today’s large photographic monograph is obliged to establish its subject’s extraordinary psychological and artistic complexity over time, and it demands far more circuitous decipherments than the foregoing one to explain the high-water marks of its protagonist’s aesthetic achievement. The fallacy that tragically undercuts every virtue of Germaine Krull: Photographer of Modernity is arguably not the author’s but that of the big-book idiom as a whole. This conceit holds that if a photographer has (like Krull) suffered unwonted public neglect until the present, and if some given phase of her photography not only earns close study on its own merits but sheds new light on many neighboring oeuvres (as Krull’s city work surely does on that of Moholy-Nagy, Brassaï, Kertesz, and other interwar urban photographers), then her life work as a whole must warrant close, book-length appraisal and (no afterthought, this, for the art market standing behind big books) potential induction into the hungry canon of freshly auctionable art investments.

But to restate bluntly a question that has been raised before, why is a lifetime’s output of photographs, willy-nilly, an “oeuvre” that will benefit from encirclement by monographic attention? In Krull’s case, the unhappy effect of this approach is that, in order to get the closely considered, well-printed, moderately sized book on her magazine work and brilliant Métal portfolio (1928) that has so long been needed (chapters four through six of the present work), one is obliged to acquire an absurdly oversized package, larded with full-size plates illustrating the humdrum early portraits and nudes mentioned above, as well as discussions and illustrations of Krull’s equally déjà-vu product-advertising work, and even chapters on the mind-numbingly unexceptional photographs she went on to make on the job in Africa, and at leisure in Asia, in later years.

The Photographer, unfortunately, was born to art historical attention at roughly the time the Author died everywhere else. Despite the recent rise and maturation of more promising methodological exemplars in fields like visual culture and media studies, the photograph’s viability as a subject of art historical research has remained awkwardly dependent on an ultimately unsustainable Berensonian model of authorship and oeuvre. Early on, Sichel makes preemptive efforts to fashion a serviceable narrative engine out of the professional opportunism that drove most of Krull’s photographic career, but these efforts—disastrously, for the monograph’s rhetorical charge—lead to tautology or untenably theorized formulations. Krull’s “essentially practical and adventurous nature allowed her to react constructively to her varied surroundings” (xxiii); her studio business in Paris points to her vision of a “more humanist modernism that included portraiture” (xxv). But the disunity of Krull’s commercial work, a mirror of the discontinuities of modern institutions in flux, and her unaffected distance from such programmatic notions as “humanistic modernism” are characteristics that lend her best work more, rather than less, aesthetic and historical power. The rudderlessness of Krull’s authorial “career,” antithetical though it may be to the expectations of the life monograph, is worth recognizing as a relevant complement to her salience as an observer, agent, and servant (as the book’s title has it) “of Modernity.

One might speculate that being a “Photographer of Modernity,” in the sense in which Krull was one (Moholy-Nagy was not one, nor Weston, Edgerton, or Bourke-White, to cite a range), bore generic resemblance to being a sound engineer or job printer “of Modernity.” Positions that demanded technical acumen, competitive aptitude, and craft expertise, these vocations marked intersections between Modernity as an epoch and Modernism as a congeries of interests, institutions, and ideologies. They offered broad opportunities for astute and creative aesthetic decision-making and action, but only rarely took the shape of authorial fields of behavior, in which the practitioner’s choices caused a “work” to be “about” enunciable themes. It is against the professional background of such structural inhibitions, one suspects, that Krull’s achievements as a photographic innovator will ultimately stand out—achievements that this monograph usefully brings to attention, for closer study in more sympathetic formats to come.

Joel Smith
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College